During the second term of the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency, the most important element of the country’s foreign policy, as the rulers and foreign policy czars saw it, was the defence of the country at the UN Human Rights Council sessions. That is a very insular, if not primitive way of conducting the foreign policy of the state.
Nonetheless, come March or September every year, crème de la crème of the local diplomats, or so they thought themselves of, ganged up in Geneva to showcase their intellectual brilliance and outsmart the country’s perceived foreign adversaries: the European diplomats, NGO captains, journalists etc. On the sideline, there was also a battle of egos and hubris of the country’s scholar (and politically appointed) diplomats who indulged in an emotionally charged defence of the country’s worsening human rights record. Much of that advocacy was about semantics and less about substance. All throughout the international response hardened, and the prospect of a concerted international approach undertaken due to the absence of the government’s action to remedy the persisting right concerns had been looming large.
Sri Lanka’s defence at the UNHRC, then and now, is premised on the denial of the problem. Thus it failed and is bound to fail again. The country’s diplomats were defending the indefensible. Yet none dared to reason out to their political bosses the need to address concerns over human rights, justice for victims of past crimes, press freedom, devolution of power and other related issues. All those possible remedies were outlined in the government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) Report. The implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC report became a rallying call of European nations and India at the UNHRC, and was the context for a subsequent resolution.
As troubles loom in Geneva, Sri Lanka has resorted to the failed old strategy. Denial of the problem is the cornerstone. It is conveyed through the emotionally charged humbuggery. This creates a degree of personalization of foreign policy
Sri Lanka is now facing a fresh UNHRC resolution tabled by the UK on behalf of the co-group of Countries on Sri Lanka. The resolution will be taken for a vote on March 22. The resolution could be the precursor to an enhanced international role in justice and accountability.
The Zero draft resolution which may be subject to revision in (Operative Para 6) “ Recognizes the importance of preserving and analyzing evidence relating to violations and abuses of human rights and related crimes in Sri Lanka with a view to advancing accountability, and decides to strengthen the capacity of the Office of the High Commissioner to [collect], consolidate, analyze and preserve information and evidence and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial proceedings in Member States with competent jurisdiction.”
This could allow the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCR) to establish a fact-finding mission similar to the ones in Myanmar (established under Resolution A/HRC/RES/34/22) to investigate military abuses in Rakhine state, in Venezuela (established under resolution 42/25 to investigate extrajudicial killings or in Syria.
The evidence compiled by the OHCHR could well lead some states to exercise universal jurisdiction over alleged human rights abuses. Reportedly some countries have insisted on the inclusion of ‘extradition of alleged perpetrators in the draft resolution. Needless to say an extradition request by a major power would place the government in dilemma.
The accompanying Operative Paragraph 7 of the resolution raises serious concerns over the early warning signs of deteriorating human rights situations, the militarization of the government, eroding the independence of independent institutions, impunity and political obstruction of investigations into past human rights crimes, marginalization of minorities and shrinking space of freedom etc.
As troubles loom in Geneva, Sri Lanka has resorted to the failed old strategy. Denial of the problem is the cornerstone. It is conveyed through the emotionally charged humbuggery. This creates a degree of personalization of foreign policy. And the local pundits are more at ease with finding fault with the personalities and their performance, rather than grappling with the fundamental problem, which is the absence of genuine political commitment and failure to walk the talk.
Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative at Geneva C.A. Chandraprema, a former journalist and the author of ‘Gota’s War’, is reportedly chided in the local circles for a procedural error at the informal dialogue on the draft resolution. He was seemingly angry and had insisted that instead of reviewing the draft resolution line by line as it is customary done, Operative paragraphs 6 and 7 (which the government consider as problematic) be reviewed first. The chair of the session declined the request.
For some folks at home, this is a major embarrassment. It is not. It is competing egos that do the talking. Folks who hesitate to point out the fundamental failure, the sheer absence of political commitment to address the legitimate concerns - are yet again resorting to semantics to find a scapegoat.
The truth is that no matter who represents Sri Lanka at the UNHRC, the government’s approach of denial is bound to fail. And this time, it would have long term consequences.
The government dug itself into this hole. It unilaterally withdrew from the previous UN Human Rights Resolution co-sponsored by its predecessor, and passed the 20th Amendment that undermined the independence of independent institutions, including judiciary, which itself has strengthened the call for an international mechanism.
The investigations into high profile rights abuses, such as the Navy ransom squad implicated in abduction and murder of Tamil youth, abduction of Prageeth Ekneligoda, Lalith and Kugan, killing of Lasantha Wickremethunga have come to a grinding halt.
Instead of showing its commitment to justice and accountability, the government has slammed the campaigners for justice. Last week, after Ahimsa Wickrematunge, daughter of Lasantha penned an opinion piece to the Washington Post, calling for justice for her slain father, the government’s interlocutors slammed her for trying to “destroy Sri Lanka and see its downfall”
This strategy of ‘traitorizing’ the critics was also in the old book and it was those policies and their extreme gestures that manifested in white vans that have come to haunt the government.
Sri Lanka cannot talk over the forthcoming UNHRC resolution. However, with a concerted effort to address underlined concerns, and making a genuine effort to democratic reforms, accountability and demilitarization of the government, it can avoid far-reaching future consequences. That way, it might be able to avoid an eventuality that would entrap not just the regime leaders, but also an entire nation.
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